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Gretchen L. Wade - Serving the Visually Impaired User - portal: Libraries and the Academy 3:2 portal: Libraries and the Academy 3.2 (2003) 307-313

Serving the Visually Impaired User

Gretchen L. Wade

Abstract: Providing service to visually impaired persons can provide a special challenge to librarians. This article provides suggestions on making libraries more accessible. Both technological solutions and staff training are addressed.


As librarians, we wish to create and provide an environment that will allow our users to feel safe and comfortable while finding the information that they need. However, not all of our users have the same needs. Increasingly, librarians are faced with users who are not able to use a library that has been designed for the "average" user. People with disabilities are becoming more visible in our society. Part of this is because of medical advances, part is because of technological advances, but the most important factor in the increasing number of people with disabilities in our libraries is because of changing attitudes in society. It is now more expected and accepted that people with disabilities of all sorts will fully participate in life and society. As more people with disabilities attend colleges, universities, and other learning institutes, it is incumbent upon librarians to provide the same level of service to them as is provided to users without disabilities.

There are obviously many different types of disabilities. There are disabilities that affect the senses, motor abilities, emotions, and the ability to learn. In this article, I will be focusing only on visual impairments. Even this one set of disabilities encompasses many variations. Many visually impaired people have some degree of sight; some have [End Page 307] no vision at all. Some may read Braille, but many do not. All, however, need our help in becoming familiar with the library building and using the materials within. By combining high and low technology solutions with a genuine desire to serve, librarians can create an environment where all users can participate in the search for knowledge.

Libraries and the ADA

While librarians naturally have a desire to serve disabled users, a new incentive to do so was created by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This federal law is designed to insure that persons with disabilities will not face discrimination by any public service organization. The ADA is divided into five sections. Titles I, IV, and V are not concerned with accommodations that must be made in public spaces, and so will not be addressed here. However, Titles II and III are applicable to the relationship between library and user. Both sections guard against discrimination by institutions that provide service to the public. This includes such places as stores, museums, libraries, arenas, and public transportation. In short, nearly every service-providing entity is covered. One notable exception is federal agencies, which are covered by separate anti-discrimination regulations. The ADA is intended to protect those individuals who have disabilities that impair their ability to perform common activities. Both public and private institutions are mandated to make their services and programs available to people with disabilities.

Private and public institutions are not required to provide the same level of accommodation. Title II of the ADA outlines the requirements for public institutions, such as state funded schools and libraries. 1 A public institution is required to make all changes to their building and policies that can be achieved without "undue financial burden." A private institution, as covered by Title III, is only required to make those changes that are "readily achievable." In theory, then, private institutions can spend less money and effort than public institutions without fearing legal action. In reality, all parts of the ADA are open to interpretation. The act was written broadly so that no one would be excluded. Because of this broadness, people are able to challenge definitions of disability and extents to which accommodations are made. Each new legal case further defines the limits of the ADA. Librarians may avoid some of the problems caused by this ambiguity by creating an environment that is as accessible as possible. This approach can help avoid both legal and ethical problems.

Environmental issues

Fortunately, there is a wide range of solutions available to librarians. They range from low tech to high tech, and address many issues. One of the most basic requirements that must be met is that a person with low vision be able to maneuver around the library. Bold signage is the first step in helping users negotiate the library. Signs should be printed in high contrast colors (dark letters on light background or the reverse) and in a large font. Another possibility is the creation of what Ray Turner calls "color trails." 2 This is a series of boldly colored pathways on the library floors. Turner suggests assigning different colors to different activities or areas. For instance, a white trail might indicate [End Page 308] the way to the card catalog, a blue trail might lead to reference, and a red trail might lead to the circulation area. In the same vein, users may be warned of hazardous areas by a strip of raised bumps that can be felt underfoot. Users with too little vision to use color trails or to see signs would be better served with tactile signs. Such signs may be represented in either Braille type or in raised lettering. This type of signage can also be used in stack areas, where low lighting may create problems for even the partially sighted.

None of these techniques will work without an orientation session for the user. While most people, sighted or not, create mental maps of places, these mental maps are crucial to those with low vision. It is vital that a staff member walk a new user through the library, pointing out useful features such as tactile signs, service points, and evacuation routes. It is only this way that a user with low vision can become familiar enough with the building to become independent. It is also essential that pathways are always kept clear of any obstruction that may hinder progress. Tripping over an unexpected obstacle can shake the confidence of a user. Creating a comfortable and safe environment requires making sure that ways are always clear.

Accessible print resources

Once the user has become familiar with the environment, she or he will probably want to use library materials. Some materials are created with the low vision user in mind. Large print books have been published for many years. The enlarged font is often enough to make the book usable to a person with a visual impairment. There are, however, several significant drawbacks to this format. First and foremost, there are relatively few books published in large print, and the majority are fiction titles. This may be adequate for the recreational reader, but not for a more serious researcher, such as would be found in an academic library. Perhaps less significantly, large print books are more bulky than regular print books. While this may not be terribly important, it is still a drawback. Braille texts suffer from the same drawbacks, with even fewer available titles than large print. Talking books, too, are limited. Another point against these formats is the cost of purchasing, processing, and storing the materials. Unless the library serves a large visually impaired population, it may not be practical for the library to collect duplicate materials in large print or Braille. Purchasing materials on demand is a possibility, but could result in unreasonable delays for the user. Because of these reasons, many libraries choose instead to invest in equipment that can render their existing materials usable to their users with visual impairments.

There are many different types of equipment that can translate printed text into either larger print text or spoken word. The simplest devices are magnifiers. These run the gamut from hand-held magnifying glasses to frame mounted magnifiers to closed circuit television systems that magnify and project text. Which device is used depends on several criteria: how much vision the user has, whether the user can hold a magnifier, and what the library can afford. Frame mounted magnifiers are often a good choice, as they are easy to use, offer high magnification, and are inexpensive.

However, magnifying devices only work if the user has some vision. For users with very low or no vision, text readers are needed. In the past, the only option was a human reader. This is sometimes still a good option, but is not always practical. Software [End Page 309] solutions may be a better way to go. 3 One such product is Open Book. This software requires a computer to run the software, a scanner to enter the text into the computer, and a soundcard. The user or the librarian places the text on the scanner and Open Book reads it out loud. For low vision users, Open Book can be configured to magnify the text on the computer monitor rather than reading it aloud. The manufacturer claims a high rate of accuracy and flexibility in the product. Currently, Open Book software costs approximately $1000.00. Assuming the library also had to purchase a scanner, but already had a computer, the system could be completely set up for approximately $1200.00.

There are also Braille printers available. As mentioned previously, not all people with vision impairments can read Braille. Those who do, however, should be able to print out their work and take it with them, just as a sighted person could. Unfortunately, a Braille printer adds considerable expense to an accessible workstation. One model, the Braille Blazer, allows printing on regular paper, the heavier paper normally used for Braille, and plastic, for the creation of signs. This product costs approximately $1695.00. A more sophisticated product, the Mountbatten Brailler, can also translate Braille documents into plain text and ranges from $3695.00 to $3995.00. Finally, the P.I.A.F. Tactile Image Maker translates graphics into tactile print that can be interpreted by a person with low vision. It costs about $1295.00. The high cost of Braille printers, combined with possible low usage, may preclude most libraries from purchasing such items. However, a tactile image-maker might be a good investment. A tactile map of the library building, or even of the entire campus, would be very valuable to a person with low vision. Such a map would help reinforce the orientation that the library staff gives to the user.

Accessible electronic resources

Of course, not all library resources are print-based. Users with visual disabilities also need to be able to use electronic resources. There are many ways to make electronic resources usable. Large monitors using large fonts are one way to improve visibility. There are other simple solutions such as large print labels that are placed over the keys on a keyboard to make the keys easier to see. Some libraries take a more high tech tack and make software available that reads screen contents aloud. One of the most popular brands of reader software is Dragon. There are several different types of Dragon software, but the basic edition works both as a reader and an input device. Because it does include the speech recognition element, it is useful not only to the visually impaired, but also to any user who has difficulty using a keyboard. Dragon has a wide range of products, each with differing levels of sophistication and features. Prices also range widely, from about $100.00 to $700.00. Reviews of the Dragon range of products are favorable, as great advances have been made over previous speech recognition products. There are other similar products in comparable price ranges. Most products also allow for output to be presented as a Braille display. This type of hardware takes the information from the reader and transforms it into a tactile, refreshable Braille display. Unfortunately, these Braille displays are extremely expensive, ranging from $4000.00 to $10,000.00. I imagine that most libraries would not be able to justify such an expense. [End Page 310]

While screen text readers work very well for textual works, the visual nature of the Internet creates special problems. It is possible to caption graphical portions of a web page so that a text reader can make sense of it, but many web page designers do not bother to do so, or only give very brief descriptions. Pages are also often arranged in a nonlinear fashion that can confuse text reader software. Librarians and others are trying to improve the situation, however. After discovering that more than half of their web pages were not readable by text readers, Harvard University has created a set of guidelines for their web designers. 4 These guidelines try to rectify common problems that impair accessibility, such as lack of description of graphical elements and unlabelled frames. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) is another resource for creating accessible web pages. 5 Among the products originated by CAST is Bobby, software that will automatically evaluate any web page for accessibility. Not only does Bobby point out problems, but it also gives suggestions for fixing them. The online version of Bobby will only test one page at a time, but a downloadable for-fee version will test an entire site. It is also worthwhile to simply apply a text reader to the web page in question. If this testing can be performed by a person with a visual disability, so much the better. Many obvious problems can be quickly rooted out this way. Many libraries create their own home pages. It is worth taking a little extra time to make sure that you are presenting an accessible page to the world.

Accessible library staff

All of these technological solutions are wonderful, but none of them will help at all if the library staff are not committed to serving their disabled users. All of the technology in the world is useless if no one is willing to help the user learn how to use it. The single most important aspect of creating an accessible environment is staff attitude. While librarians are in the business of helping people, they are also susceptible to prejudice and misconceptions about the visually impaired. Many people are simply uncomfortable around any person with a disability, perhaps feeling that they will somehow offend the person. Library staff need to learn that a person with a disability is a person, not simply a disability.

Luckily, there is a wealth of information available for administrators who want to help develop the sensitivities of their staff. Books such as Kieth Wright and Judith Davie's Serving the Disabled and Tom McNulty's Accessible Libraries on Campus offer many suggestions. 6 Librarians who are uncomfortable with the disabled may find basic etiquette suggestions to be most helpful. Wright and Davie, in particular, include a common-sense guide on how to treat a user with a disability. They emphasize treating the person with all the respect that you would treat any patron, while still making the accommodations that their disability requires. It is a fine line between being helpful and being patronizing, but any librarian who is committed to service should have no trouble walking it. Another tricky situation is caused when a user with a disability does not want to [End Page 311] use the accommodations that a library has created. In this case, a librarian has to make her or his best effort to help, but then leave the user alone, if that is what the user wants. An interesting provision in the ADA is the right of the person with a disability to say no. This means that it is the user's choice, and his or her choice only, as to what materials and equipment to use. I think that this is an important point to emphasize in any training program: disabled or not, the user is an adult who shall be allowed to make his or her own decisions.


It should be the goal of all librarians, and perhaps even more so for academic librarians, to provide excellent service to all of their users. Although some people may be uncomfortable or nervous when introduced to a person with a disability, it is absolutely necessary that all library staff be trained to help these users with the respect and professionalism that they deserve. When a professional attitude is combined with the available adaptive technology, librarians can't help but provide the proper environment for learning.


Gretchen L. Wade is Reference and Collection Development Librarian at the Harvard University Botany Libraries; she may be contacted via e-mail at:

Additional Resources

Berliss, Jane R. "Checklists for Making Library Automation Accessible to Disabled Patrons" (March 1992). Available via EASI: Equal Access to Information, <> [February 7, 2003].

Suzanne Byerley. "Usability Testing and Students with Visual Disabilities: Building Electronic Curb Cuts into a Library Web Site," Colorado Libraries 27, 3 (Fall 2001): 22-24.

Cirillo, Susan E. and Robert E Danforth, eds. Library Buildings, Equipment and the ADA (Chicago: American Library Association, 1996).

Crispen, Joanne L. The Americans with Disabilities Act: Its Impact on Libraries: The Library's Responses in "Doable" Steps (Chicago: Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies, 1993).

Deines-Jones, Courtney. "Access to Library Internet Services for Patrons with Disabilities: Pragmatic Considerations for Developers" (April 1, 1999). Available via EASI: Equal Access to Information, <> [February 7, 2003].

Deines-Jones, Courtney and Connie Van Fleet. Preparing Staff to Serve Patrons with Disabilities (New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1995).

Foos, Donald D. and Nancy C. Pack, eds. How Libraries Must Comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1992).

Mates, Barbara. Adaptive Technology for the Internet: Making Electronic Resources Accessible to All (Chicago: American Library Association, 2000).

Trotta, Carmine J. and Marcia Trotta. The Librarian's Facility Management Handbook (New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 2001).

Wilhelmus, David W. "Perspectives on the Americans with Disabilities Act: Accessibility of Academic Libraries to Visually Impaired Patrons," Journal of Academic Librarianship 22 (September 1996): 366-370. [End Page 312]


1. The text of the Americans with Disabilities Act is available at <> {February 7, 2003].

2. Ray Turner, Library Patrons with Disabilities (San Antonio, TX: White Buffalo Press, 1996), 82-83.

3. Extensive information on technological solutions can be found at <> [February 7, 2003].

4. Harvard University, Web Accessibility Standards (June 2001). Available: <> [February 7, 2003].

5. Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), <> [February 7, 2003].

6. Kieth [sic] C. Wright and Judith F. Davie, Serving the Disabled (New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, 1991); Tom McNulty, ed., Accessible Libraries on Campus: A Practical Guide to the Creation of Disability-Friendly Libraries (Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 1999).

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